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|Written by Mike Cullen|
|Wednesday, 21 October 2009 00:00|
Critics of U2 often argue that the band long ago hit their creative peak and that nothing they do now or in the future will ever compare to previous works such as The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.While those three albums can certainly be considered career highlights, U2 have not yet reached the pinnacle or zenith of their career. With their latest album, No Line on the Horizon, and the accompanying U2 360˚ Tour, however, the band has indeed moved a little bit closer to the mark.
When No Line on the Horizon was originally released in February of this year, I had a difficult time getting into the album, despite beginning unabashed U2 fanatic. It was different enough from All That You Can't Believe Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb to be strangley off-putting upon first listen. For a band that seemingly puts out albums in thematic triads (Boy/October/War, The Unforgettable Fire/The Joshua Tree/ Rattle & Hum, Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop), No Line on the Horizon should fit in with the last two albums, but it distinctively does not.
It's not a particularly bad album; it's just not an instantly likable on either. At times, it feels a bit thematically scattered. In promotional interviews, Bono revealed that he experienced writers block during the writing of the album. Writing in the first person was becoming too Critics of U2 often argue that the band long ago hit their creative peak... restrictive, so he began creating characters to speak through: a soldier serving in Afghanistan, a traffic cop, and a junkie. It is an interesting mix of characters, but when slapped together, the listener is never quite aware of the overarching theme that brings them all together.
The junkie is prominently featured in "Moment of Surrender and "Unknown Caller", while the soldier's moment to shine comes on the haunting and beautiful "White as Snow"; songs such as "Get On Your Boots", "I'll Go Crazy, If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight", and the title track, seem to be written from Bono's perspective; but, after half a year of listening, I am still unable to figure out where the traffic cop fits into the mix. Not that it really matters in the grand scheme of things... but I do believe connecting all the dots can reveal an album's thematic raison d'être.Despite the bouncing back and forth of characters, the real trick, as a listener, is to ignore the characters and approach No Line on the Horizon as a straight-up U2 record. The characters were simply muses for Bono's benefit. This becomes especially evident in the live show, during which the performance seems to come directly from Bono's heart.
U2 is well known for their live shows. In fact, live performance just might be the area where the band really has peaked. After the extravagance of the ZooTV and PopMart Tours, the band scaled things back their last few tours. Capitalizing on a stripped down stadium show has probably done a lot to help catapult them to the next level. While the stages are still large, the band has learned the best way to be close to the fans is to put them within arm's length, physically, as well as musically.
The U2 360˚ Tour continues this tradition of connecting with fans while still delivering a big (some are calling it the biggest of all time) live show. As you have no doubt heard by now, the stage is a giant spaceship that can be viewed from all sides.Live performance just might be the area where the band really has peaked.
For the show in Toronto last month, audience member, myself included, were transported away on a rocket ship, while the band combed twenty years of discography to give a show full of hits, fan favorites, and even a few surprises.
New material included "Breathe", "Get On Your Boots", and several others, while previous hits such as "Beautiful Day", "With or Without You" and "Vertigo" were also prominent. The real surprises of the evening were the songs not heard in a long time; those rare gems that the band is known for pulling out for each tour. For the Toronto show, this included "Your Blue Room", which the band recorded in the mid-90s under the pseudonym Passengers, "The Unforgettable Fire", which has not been played live in twenty years, and "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)", a personal favorite of mine from Achtung Baby.
In addition to thee surprise tracks, Bono gave snippets of other people's songs, most notably Elvis Costello, with "Pump It Up" sung at the end of "Vertigo", and "Alison" at the end of "Beautiful Day".
So, as the cliché goes; U2 gave the audience something old, new, borrowed, and, of course, blue, all wrapped within two solid hours of musical entertainment.
The question remains whether or not one of the world's greatest rock bands has actually hit their peak. If you look solely at sales, The Joshua Tree is the band's peak. While creatively brilliant, it can be argued that it's still not the band's peak. In addition to The Joshua Tree, hardcore fans often cite Achtung Baby as their favorite album. Achtung Baby is perhaps their most creative album lyrically, but their peak? Maybe... Critics tend to rave about how the band broke new ground with the last two albums, but that is perhaps more of a resurgence of creative energies than it is a true peak.
I would argue that the band has had several peaks in their thirty plus years together, and that their meteoric rise will continue as they capitalize on excellent live shows and continue to put out high quality albums, even if, like No Line on the Horizon, they are not instant classics. A true and final peak for the band is still years away.
An Ottawa native, Mike is a government worker by day, and a self-professed music and comic book junkie the rest of the time. To him, music is more important than water or air.